Oxford and colonialism: then and now

A poster advertising the Oxford and Colonialism Event

More than 100 staff and students from across the Faculty of History took part in a special ‘teach-in’ event on Tuesday 14 June, to discuss issues arising from Oxford’s historical relationship with colonialism and its impact on the lived experience of students today. The event was held at the Social Sciences Division (Manor Road building) and was run in an inclusive, non-hierarchical fashion, in the spirit of US campus teach-in events of the 1960s, in order to create an equalizing learning space, with the intention of encouraging open debate and an acknowledgement of all points of view.

Discussion ranged across four broad themes which are of broad contemporary concern. First and foremost, it discussed the University’s role in the colonial and imperial history of the British Empire, and in the emergence of anti-colonial movements. Secondly, however, it discussed how the History Faculty should respond to that history in its teaching and research, with reference to how the iconography of Oxford, and more especially its signs, symbols and statues represent the University, and act as expressions of the sometimes uncomfortable memory of empire.  Thirdly, the event discussed the teaching of non-European history. The History faculty is engaged in a substantial process of course reform, and the teach-in discussed how subjects such as African History can be brought from the margins of the syllabus, and integrated not just as exotic others but as core elements of undergraduate teaching of History. Finally, the teach-in discussed the lived experience of students at Oxford today, with an increasing diversity of identities, and yet where obstacles are still often perceived to exist at both the curricular and personal level. The need is to create an inclusive environment in which all members of the Oxford History community feel that they have the opportunity to pursue their intellectual development.

The event will lead onto further such discussions, especially over issues such as curriculum development. But the larger challenge, as all present were agreed, is to ensure that the shape of History as a discipline evolves in ways that recognise the wealth of research being undertaken in Asian and African history, as well as the evolution of the collegiate University into an institution which positively encourages students and staff to engage in the challenge of teaching the history of these regions.